The Anticipated: Paper Towns

In All, Movies by David

Do you hear that? That’s the sound of another The Anticipated coming your way. So which of the July 24th films is up first? Drumroll please… Paper Towns. In a move that probably surprised no one, I saw this teenage coming of age story before Woody Allen’s latest movie with someone else playing a surrogate for him now that he is too old to be a leading man. There were big expectations for Paper Towns as the next potential A Fault In Our Stars, so did it deliver or collapse under those intense expectations? Let’s get on to finding out.

Spoilers Ahead (Probably)

Paper Towns (July 24th, 2015)

How was it?

These scenes just never worked as well as they should have.

Hmm. This movie is a fascinating case study, because the first third of the movie (maybe even a bit more) is pretty bad. Basically all of the movie that prominently involves Margo (Cara Delevingne). Now, before going forward I have to say that none of this is Delevingne’s fault. She is good in her role, sometimes really, really good, but the part she is featured in is one of the more problematic parts of both the movie and the book (though for different reasons in each version). The scenes with her and Quentin (Nat Wolff) never work like they should, and this is also where the movie follows the book the most closely. To be fair, there is a reason the scenes always feel so off, because Margo and Quentin are not supposed to be in some epic love story. The romantic feelings for most of the movie are fairly one-sided, so it’s not so much that there is a chemistry issue between the two. It’s just that the scenes feel so pedestrian. There are specific plot points that have to be hit, and the scenes do that as boringly as possible. Nat Wolff’s behind the beat acting doesn’t help here either. Everything just feels off.

What does work early in the movie, however, is the banter between Quentin and his friends Ben (Austin Abrams) and Radar (Justice Smith). It feels so natural, and this movie is one of the few that actually gets the rhythm of how male friends talk to each other. So once the second half of the movie becomes more about Quentin and his friends things pick up considerably, and that part of the movie is quite good. Still, the movie constantly battles a weird lifelessness at times. It generally doesn’t last long, but is prevalent enough throughout the movie that it remains noticeable. The acting is generally fine, though none of the actors are quite strong enough to handle the weaker parts of the script. Also, there is a weirdness in the film because, while Nat Wolff is actually a good fit as Quentin specifically, he also strangely never really gives off a leading man vibe. Maybe this will come as he matures as an actor, but as of now his screen presence just isn’t enough to hold up any other movie on his own. This causes an odd schism in the movie–Nat Wolff is both good in the role, and not good in the role all at the same time. None of this stops the end of the movie, however, from hitting a great tone and pulling off something memorable, which helps one leave the theatre with a generally positive impression.

Isn’t this based on…?

Despite what has been said, I would still recommend reading the book, because its deconstruction of being in love with a manic pixie dream girl is still top notch, even if not entirely what the book should be about.

The book Paper Towns by John Green? Yes. After the success of The Fault in Our Stars, another one of John Green’s YA books has been adapted to the screen. So how does it compare? Well, that’s a tricky question. The movie has a different focus than the book–or more accurately, the movie has what should have been the focus of the book. The book is about one big thing: how people, especially boys, tend to turn others into romanticized ideals in a way that isn’t realistic. More importantly, young people think they know love, but generally what they love is the idea of a person, not the person. Quentin is convinced he is in love with Margo, even though he hardly knows her. He thinks she left him clues to come find her and begin their epic romance, but that is simply not the case. Here’s the thing, however: the book is also about Quentin and his two best friends before they go off to college, likely never to see each other in the same way ever again. The problem is the book only hints at this, and makes the mistake of concentrating too much on Margo and Quentin (though in a really messy and realistic way, to be fair), and their lack of a real relationship, instead of the actual real relationship between the three friends.

The movie realizes this is a mistake, and reworks the timeline to make the story about Quentin, Radar, and Ben going on one last crazy adventure together before their lives change forever. Their relationship is the best part of the film, and each of the actors is able to effectively portray the sense of loss over leaving your friends behind after high school. Like I said, this always felt like the real heart of the book, and considering John Green had more or less complete control over how the movie went, it is likely he agrees, which is why he changed the focus of things from Quentin and Margo to Quentin, Ben, and Radar. The thing is, by changing the focus of the story from Quentin and Margo to Quentin and his friends, the movie is able to humanize Margo in a way that the book somewhat failed to, and also do a better job of deconstructing the dream girl concept. Part of this is due to the movie’s handling of Lacey (Halston Sage), who works much better now that she simply becomes friends with the group, instead of becoming Ben’s girlfriend as in the book. The book uses her as a surrogate for Margo to give a real world demonstration to both Ben and Quentin that the reality of a girl is very different from the idealized version. Unfortunately in the novel it never quite made sense why she would be dating Ben, whereas the movie version, where Lacey becomes their friend, accomplishes much of the same thing without inserting the “popular girl falls for the nerdy guy” trope. So in general, the changes the movie made were positive and necessary, since the movie and the book had different focuses.

Did it warrant its selection on The Anticipated?

In a lot of ways, this movie is also nothing more than a paper town.

Not really, because the main reason this film was included was to see if it could compare to the financial and critical success of A Fault in Our Stars. Now, that doesn’t mean I expected it to actually do as well as A Fault in Our Stars, because that is an unrealistic standard that anyone in Hollywood expecting a film to match should be fired, considering no one knew A Fault in Our Stars was going to do as well as it did when it came out last year. Still, it is not ridiculous to hope that the film could be a major hit in its own right. Unfortunately, that is not the case. The film has not been nearly as well received critically (55% compared to 80% for A Fault in Our Stars on Rotten Tomatoes); and financially, it’s doing good, not fantastic. In the end, it didn’t warrant its selection.

At the same time, like If I Stay, this film is by no means a failure, it just proves that John Green can’t make mega-hits whenever he wants to adapt one of his books. Instead, this film is simply a solid investment, as it has already made five times its budget in domestic and international box office grosses. While it’s not getting glowing reviews, it also has generally been decently received. Basically, it is a solid movie that was cheap to make, and a lot of people enjoyed it at least a little. Ask Pixels or Fantastic Four if they would switch places with Paper Towns in a heartbeat, or don’t bother because the answer is yes. So, in that sense John Green is probably going to get another chance to continue creating his own Nicholas Sparks-ian empire, except with YA movies instead of romance movies. Basically, if you can make a movie cheaply, make decent money and as a bonus not get savaged critically, that is a successful model to build on. So really, this film has met realistic expectations, it’s just that those expectations would never have gotten this film on the list.

Would I recommend it to others?

If you like YA novels, coming of age stories, or John Green books, sure, it is worth watching as a rental, on Netflix, or as if it is playing on TV in the future. Otherwise, not really. There just isn’t enough there for any other kind of movie fans.

How does this film measure up in a post Mad Max: Fury Road world?

Not even close, but that’s okay, not everything can fly on the glorious road to Valhalla.

How would I rate it?

In the end, the most important thing is just dancing with your friends.

On our handy dandy made-up anticipation meter, Paper Towns would rate 4.5, well, umm, paper towns out of 10 because while a fun movie, it has many flaws, and just had too many expectations that it couldn’t live up to.

For an actual rating: This film benefits from ending so strongly. If the film had a great beginning but a terrible ending it would rate much lower, but instead it starts weak and ends strong, which helps it quite a bit. The writing is iffy, and holds back the acting, but the film pulls off an emotional ending, some of the best and most realistic banter between three male high school fans I have ever seen in a movie, and a potential break out performance by Cara Delevingne (when the script doesn’t get in her way), so I would say it falls short of 3 stars and instead rates 2.75 stars out 4 stars. This is a fun and entertaining film, but what it does well is good enough to hand wave away its more problematic parts.

That’s for this edition of The Anticipated. Next up is Woody Allen’s Irrational Man. Will Allen’s recent streak of odd year successes continue, or prove to be a weird fluke considering Allen is too busy writing the script for his next movie to really care what is happening with his current one? Find out in the next edition of The Anticipated.

Will David Be Watching Crimson Peak?

The Del Toro re-watch still hasn’t happened, but it now seems more and more inevitable that I will cave and go see this movie.